The Week: What You Need to Know About the Past 7 Days

May 08, 2016

Collected Letters

Running a college has no shortage of challenges, but it’s hard to think of one more delicate than asking the U.S. Education Department not to enforce some discrimination laws on your campus because of your religion.

On the one hand, you need to persuade department officials that your institution is religious enough, in belief and in practice, that it qualifies for a religion-based exemption from Title IX’s nondiscrimination requirements. On the other, you don’t want to sound eager to discriminate.

So the trove of exemption requests that the Education Department has just put online makes for nuanced — and unexpectedly engaging — reading, particularly the letters colleges sent in the wake of a 2013 agreement between the U.S. Justice Department and a California school district that had denied a transgender student access to sex-specific facilities. In the agreement, the Arcadia Unified School District pledged to treat the student, a "transgender boy who has consistently and uniformly presented as a boy at school and in all other aspects of his life for several years," as a boy.

The case clearly worried a number of colleges with religious ties. William K. Thierfelder, president of Belmont Abbey College, in North Carolina, wrote in January 2015 to say that, as a Roman Catholic institution run by an order of Benedictine monks, the college was "called to treat all people with charity and respect." But he said it could not "support or affirm the resolution of tension between one’s biological sex and the experience of gender by the adoption of a psychological identity discordant with one’s birth sex, nor attempts to change one’s birth sex by surgical intervention, nor conduct or dress consistent with an identity other than one’s birth sex." Mr. Thierfelder cited the Book of Genesis for the college’s belief that human beings, "fashioned by God in His own image and likeness, are thus created male and female."

Erik Hoekstra, president of Dordt College, in Sioux Center, Iowa, wrote a similar letter last October, opening with a mention of the 1618-19 synod in Dordrecht, in the Netherlands, that gave rise to the Christian Reformed Church, which operates the college. "Scripture is clear," he continued, "that God created humans as two distinct sexes, male and female; however, due to sin and brokenness, our experience of sex and gender is not always what God the Creator originally designed for His glory and our joy." In addition to banning "promoting or advocating sexually immoral activity," extramarital sex, and homosexual activity, Dordt prohibits "adopting an identity discordant with one’s biological sex."

Not all of the colleges that wrote to the department were concerned about transgender students. Liberty University’s president, Jerry L. Falwell Jr., wrote in January 2014 in response to a complaint that an honor-code provision banning abortions discriminates against women (the university, he said, had revised the code to make clear that the abortion prohibition "applies equally to both male and female students"). And President Andrew K. Benton of Pepperdine University wrote this past January, withdrawing the university’s 1976 request for exemption. Pepperdine continues its affiliation with the Churches of Christ, he wrote, but it is "committed to complying with Title IX."

As of last week, 232 colleges had received religious exemptions from Title IX and 31 requests were pending, the department said.

Counting to 5

You know who really, really wants a Title IX exemption right now? North Carolina lawmakers, that’s who. Unfortunately for Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, and the legislators who passed the state’s controversial "bathroom law" in a special one-day session in March, states are not eligible for exemptions from federal antidiscrimination law.

The bathroom law, you’ll remember, is also known as HB2 and says, among other things, that when people approach men’s or women’s bathrooms on state property, they must choose the door marked for the sex they were born with. Last week the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division sent no-nonsense letters to the governor, the state’s public-safety director, and Margaret Spellings, president of the University of North Carolina, to say that the law violates not only Title IX (which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex by educational institutions that receive federal funds) but also Title VII (which prohibits such discrimination by employers).

"The UNC system is in violation of federal law," the letter to Ms. Spellings warned, notwithstanding her recent assertion that the university has no "process or means to enforce HB2’s provisions" and that it "will not change existing nondiscrimination policies." Just by telling students and others that the system must officially abide by the law, the letter says, UNC is discriminating against transgender people on the basis of sex and gender identity.

And that, the federal government said, is illegal. The department added that it was giving the university five days to respond.

Plus All This ...

Days after James R. Ramsey, president of the University of Louisville, joined Gregory E. Fischer, the city’s mayor, to announce that a 70-foot-tall Confederate monument would be removed from the median of a street adjoining the university’s main campus, a state judge put the move on hold in response to a legal challenge. ... The chairwoman of Hope College’s Board of Trustees said last week that she would resign in the wake of the board’s unsuccessful attempt to dismiss John C. Knapp, president of the liberal-­arts college in Michigan. ... Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia vetoed a bill that would have permitted licensed gun owners to bring concealed weapons onto public-college campuses. The governor wrote that if the bill’s intent was "to increase safety of students on college campuses, it is highly questionable that such would be the result." … An unlucky beech marten that jumped onto a transformer and caused it to short-circuit caused a weeklong shutdown of the Large Hadron Collider, the giant particle accelerator near Geneva, Switzerland. The small mammal did not survive the incident.

Epitaphs, Archived

Billy Howard
In the late 1980s, after AIDS killed his dentist, Billy Howard assembled an extraordinary book by taking photographs of 78 people with AIDS and then asking them to write whatever they wanted beneath their pictures. Mr. Howard was then the head photographer at Emory University’s news service, but the book was a side project. Initially he photographed only people around Atlanta, but when the university gave him a short leave and Delta Air Lines agreed to support the project, he expanded it to four other cities. The result, Epitaphs for the Living: Words and Images in the Time of AIDS, was published in 1989 by Southern Methodist University Press.

"People opened up to me very quickly," Mr. Howard told me at the time. "It was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had, that year and a half of taking pictures."

Not long ago Mr. Howard, now a freelance photographer, called with an update: Emory’s archive has acquired his negatives and files from the project, although they’re not yet accessible to the public. They’ll become part of a university collection devoted to Atlanta.

Amazingly, at least a couple of the people photographed for the book are still alive, Mr. Howard said, including a man who identified himself only as "D" in the book and who was photographed with his face half hidden. "We wish to be unmasked," he wrote below his picture. "However ... fear and ignorance prevail." Times have changed. A few years ago the man, unmasked and healthy, joined Mr. Howard in appearances at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, in Washington, where some of the photographs from the book were displayed. His name is Doug Lothes.

Lawrence Biemiller writes about a variety of usual and unusual higher-education topics. Reach him at